It’s been nearly 30 years since I first met Dave Barry, hired him and became his editor. I then watched with pride and pleasure as my good friend went on to become a nationally acclaimed columnist, best-selling author, sitcom character, rapacious plutocrat, etc. Eventually, I was so filled with pride and pleasure that I considered taking a toaster into the bathtub.
Friends, of course, do not envy friends, so I channeled that ugly emotion into something more productive: infantile competitiveness. This has not always gone well. For example, when I went to a remote island village in the Bering Sea some years ago, I paid an Eskimo $200 for a huge fossilized walrus penis bone. When I got home, I learned that Dave already had a fossilized walrus penis bone, and it was a half-inch longer than mine.
All of this might help explain what happened recently after I got an e-mail from Alan Heymann, the PR guy for the Washington, D.C., sewage treatment plant. Alan invited me to take a tour of the facility, for a column.
I responded in one sentence: “When DAVE BARRY got invited to a sewage plant in Grand Forks, N.D., they named it after him.”
This was true. He turned it into a hilarious column.
Alan is a pro. He understood that a negotiation was underway. He replied that he was sure something could be arranged.
I wrote back: “DAVE got a plaque.”
Alan responded: “There will be signage.”
Before beginning the tour, the sewage plant’s genial general manager, George S. Hawkins, gingerly sniffed the air like a sommelier, declaring it “excellent.” Oddly, I had detected a different bouquet. My walk from the parking lot had been a battle between me and my pyloric sphincter, the valve below the stomach that is in charge of when one pukes.
On the tour, I learned several interesting things, among them that sewage-plant terminology involves many euphemisms, such as “suspended solids.” Also, I learned that sewage-plant people are really into their work. George proudly informed me that his Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant processes more than 300 million gallons of raw sewage a day, purifying the outflow to less than 6 milligrams per liter of nitrogen, which is compliant with federal clean-water standards, and. ...
“I don’t want to put words in your mouth,” I said, “but what I am hearing is that this plant is bigger than the Dave Barry Sewage Lift Station No. 16 in Grand Forks, North Dakota.”
George blinked, looked around for help.
“Yes, it is!” Alan said. “It is a lot bigger.”
My worst and best moments came in the Grit Removal Room (“grit” being another of those euphemisms), where a set of rakes removes the largest objects from the ripest of the sewage and sends them up a conveyor belt to be dumped into trucks, where they will be carried to landfills. As we stood beside this belt, watching a parade of brownish, slimy lumps shiver their way northward, I realized why George had liked the smell of the air outside. I longed for the smell of the air outside.
And that’s where my best moment happened. This room, the grit removal chamber, was to be my shrine.
With a flourish, George uncovered a sign on the wall to reveal a bronze plaque declaring these the official “Gene Weingarten Grit Removal Screens.” Our small entourage of hard-hatted sewage workers applauded.
Okay, it wasn’t the whole room. It was just the screens themselves. But they do some mighty important work.
All in all, I was totally choked up. I’m pretty sure some of it was emotion.
E-mail Gene at firstname.lastname@example.org.